Why Alaska’s Inupiat Are Warming to Offshore Oil Drilling

Many Inupiat leaders now support offshore oil drilling, citing economic reasons. Not all North Slope residents agree.

Three hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, where the sun is now up 24 hours a day, Alaskans are fanning out into frigid waters to hunt bowhead whales.

For decades this subsistence hunt was the main reason that many of the 10,000 residents of the North Slope opposed offshore oil drilling: They worried that an oil spill would hurt the whales, walrus, and seals they still depend on for food.

President Barack Obama's conditional approval last week of drilling by Shell in the Arctic Ocean's Chukchi Sea triggered a flotilla of several hundred kayakers who protested in Seattle. But in northernmost Alaska, the people with arguably the most to gain and lose—the Inupiat—are now divided.

"People think of our villages as quaint, but we have real needs: schools, power plants," says Richard Glenn, a whaling captain and vice president of a regional native corporation representing North Slope Inupiat. "It's not an issue that we approach lightly. We've done a lot of soul-searching."

Many Inupiat leaders now support the drilling, citing financial reasons. Prudhoe Bay, the nation's largest oil field, drives their economy, and taxes on the industry account for nearly all government revenue. But the future looks bleak because the oil pumping through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline has dropped 75 percent since 1988 and is falling 5 percent a year.

As a result, native corporations representing residents of six of the eight communities at the top of Alaska have signed an agreement allowing them to acquire interest in Shell's offshore Chukchi Sea leases. The mayor of America's northernmost municipal government—the North Slope Borough—is now an outspoken backer of ocean drilling. The Village of Point Hope, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to overturn federal approval of Shell's leases, dropped its legal challenge in March and openly embraces Shell's efforts.

Still, many residents still oppose the drilling, which pits family member against family member.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, former mayor of Nuiqsut, worries that the noise from exploration will force bowhead farther offshore, making whaling riskier for hunters.

Others still fear spills.

"Everybody's skeptical," says Leo Ferreira, president of the Village of Point Lay, whose native corporation is one of the two that do not support Shell. "If there's an oil spill, it will start a chain reaction and start killing off the sea animals."

Villages Transformed by Oil

Seventy years ago Inupiat residents lived in sod houses and melted ice and snow for water.

"To have heat and light, they had to burn whale oil," North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower told a visiting panel of ocean experts last month. "To travel from place to place, they had to walk or use a dog team."

In 1968 the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay fundamentally transformed Inupiat communities. Although no roads lead out of Barrow or other villages, residents now drive trucks and four-wheelers, use outboards and powerboats, and fly from village to village.

For years the Inupiat had remained consistent when it came to oil exploration: They largely supported it in some places where environmentalists did not, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but they opposed it offshore because of concerns about spoiling hunting grounds. Many Arctic people rely on whale and walrus meat and other foods culled from the sea because of their centuries-old cultural traditions and the expense and poor nutritional value of imported foods.

"All of us in the North Slope—I say all of us, there are many residents that live on the North Slope, and there are eight villages—we are all opposed to offshore drilling," Fenton Rexford, then the president of the village of Kaktovik, told PBS NewsHour in 2005.

But in the years of battles leading up to this summer, when Shell plans to drill two wells 8,000 feet deep, many residents shifted their positions.

"People have come closer to the center," says Barrow resident Marie Carroll, who once was a staunch opponent of offshore drilling. "It's going to happen, and we should get something out of it."

Because warming temperatures are altering wildlife migration patterns and melting sea ice, most North Slope villagers are concerned about climate change. But given that the rest of the world benefited from the fossil fuels that have contributed to global warming, some are unsympathetic to outsiders' concerns that drilling in the Arctic Ocean will make climate change worse.

Riled by "Paternalistic" Outsiders

When Washington State Governor Jay Inslee urged the Obama Administration to oppose offshore development, Brower balked.

"It reeks of the paternalistic past when the state of Alaska was plundered by people from Washington and elsewhere who coveted our resources," she wrote last month in an open letter to Inslee. "But instead of whales, fish, or timber as it was in those days, it's wilderness areas and romantic notions of what the Arctic should be that continue to drive outsiders to glibly advocate for limiting resource development."

Some argue that with Russia and other countries ramping up Arctic exploration, banning drilling in U.S. waters would simply give foreign nations an edge.

Others say that global warming is making Arctic drilling potentially easier, less risky, and more profitable by keeping ice at bay longer in summer.

"If you'd seen what I've seen over the last 50 years, you'd know it's not as risky anymore," says Alaska State Representative Ben Nageak, a Democrat who was raised on the North Slope. "I don't even go out hunting [on ice] anymore because I don't recognize it. I'm a stranger in my own land."

Glenn says that keeping Shell from drilling offshore doesn't ultimately reduce the emissions that drive climate change because oil will be developed elsewhere. "You're not improving the climate," he says. "You're just removing something that exists in our region that has fostered development."

But George Edwardson, 68, vice president of the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, a tribal government agency that supports Inupiat rights, traveled to Seattle to join the protests against Shell. He says that village leaders are chasing money, pressuring their neighbors, and not listening to the warnings of their elders.

"The industry is saying, 'If you don't let me go in the ocean, I'm not going to pay you anymore and you're going to go broke,'" Edwardson says. Village leaders, he adds, "shouldn't have let the industry convince them."

Follow Craig Welch on Twitter.

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